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How to put up and take down a homeless shelter in Silicon Valley


Think it’s hard to find affordable housing in Silicon Valley? Imagine what it’s like to try to find an affordable place to put an entire homeless shelter.


Bob Dolci is Santa Clara County’s Housing and Homeless Concerns Coordinator. And, yeah, he says it’s really, really hard.

“We identify a site that might be suitable, it’s gobbled up by somebody else," Dolci says. "Especially in Mountain View, Google is gobbling up a lot of properties there."

When the Sunnyvale Armory — the city’s temporary shelter for more than two decades — shut in 2013, he went looking for a site. He didn’t just have to worry about land hungry tech companies. He also had to balance the needs of Silicon Valley’s homeless population with those of concerned residents.

“There was a lot of opposition, as you can imagine, because of people not wanting a homeless shelter in their backyard,” he says.

It took him over a year, but eventually, he found a spot — a former air force base, surrounded by tech giants, like Google and Microsoft and ... not much else. With community opposition gone, Sunnyvale had itself a shelter. But it wouldn’t last forever.

He knew that at the end of the winter, the Sunnyvale shelter would close, and people would have to find a place elsewhere.

Opening week

I visit during the shelter’s first few weeks open. It’s the night before one of the first storms of the winter, when it's only just starting to get cold. The shelter is new in town, and not everyone knows it’s out here ... so tonight, there will be empty beds. But they’ll be full soon. The shelter’s designed to hold about 100 people.

“On any given night, there are 6,556 people in the county who are homeless, and there are maybe 1,000 shelter beds,” Claire Wagner, Communications Director for HomeFirst, tells me. HomeFirst is the largest network of emergency shelters in Santa Clara County, and the group who run this shelter. Wagner knows the cold can have serious consequences.

The homeless death count

“When I first got here — the first winter that I worked for HomeFirst — four people died of hypothermia one December night,” she remembers.

That was just two winters ago in San Jose. The names of the 61 people who died in Santa Clara County last year were recently read out loud in a memorial service. Most were in their late 50s. And while this shelter won’t solve homelessness, it’s at least warm inside.

Inside the shelter

“We’re basically operating shelters out of a box. We get the conics boxes, we open them up and then four months later, we put it away,” Wagner says.

Inside, it’s appears to be one big room, with mats spread across the ground. When I arrive, some people are already asleep; others are just getting comfortable, figuring out how to make mats feel like home.

There’s a tiny dog inside a cage, and a family with a baby who cries in the background. About 50 men are on one side, about 10 women on the other. There’s a TV, and a group gathers in front of it watching a car chase.

Hotel 22

I find Anna Santos in the corner by the door. She tells me she’s been homeless for nine years now. Her life untangled all at once: Her marriage ended, she lost her job as a security guard and then she lost her home.  

“I've just been out here, struggling. When I became homeless, I was staying in Willow Glen,” Santos says.

She slept on lawyer’s porches, until it became clear she wasn’t safe outside, even in a neighborhood with little crime.

“I had an incident where a man happened to approach me and I didn't want to stay in those buildings anymore,” Santos says.

Santos says she feels safer here than most places she’s stayed.  Before she arrived, she slept on Bus 22, Santa Clara County’s 24-hour bus service. It’s known as Hotel 22 because so many homeless people use it for shelter every night.

“Oh my gosh, it's like my prayers were answered, you know? It's terrible to be on the bus, people were constantly fighting,” Santos says. “It’s just so packed, if you're on the bus you want to go to sleep, but you're also standing up to go to sleep.”

She says this shelter makes her feel safer than she has in awhile, but years of homelessness have left her permanently afraid. Once on the bus, she fell asleep, and woke up when she felt a stranger rubbing his hand against her leg.

“I didn't know what to do, I couldn't breathe, and I just finally told him, you know, get away from me, don't touch me, and he tells me, it's okay honey,” Santos remembers. “I started shouting to the bus driver and he stopped the bus and he had the men get off the bus.”

So now she gets here early, and moves to the corner away from the door, where she feels safe.

The long wait for housing

Here at the shelter, most people have been referred by case managers who are helping them escape homelessness. Santos’ case manager is helping her apply for housing, but Santos says it’s still hard.

“Well, I'm really trying; I put applications out in different places, but it's a waiting list thing, waiting, just waiting,” Santos says.

It’s a long list. In Santa Clara County, 70% of the homeless population is unsheltered. That’s the largest percentage in the nation among large urban areas of unsheltered homeless people. Santos knows she’s not alone.

“I mean, there's just so many people, every time I think about it I just get emotional, you know, because there’s too many people out there,” Santos says.

Santos was planning on staying all winter, but she left the shelter in February. I asked Claire Wagner if she knew where Santos went. HomeFirst doesn’t usually keep tabs on where people go when they stop staying at the shelter and accepting their services.

“Everything pretty much depends on, is there enough staff available to make contact with them, and are there enough housing units to put them into?” Wagner explains.

Some who stayed in the shelter who will find supportive housing before it closes. Wagner knows a few people who stayed at the Armory, Sunnyvale’s old homeless shelter, now live in affordable housing units that replaced it. There’s also many others who come back to winter shelters year after year after year.

“That's our biggest problem right now. It's ... so difficult to find landlords that would accept anyone who is homeless right now, who doesn't have a stellar rental history, who doesn't have a stellar job history,” Wagner says.

Long term solutions

Even if the shelter did stay open year-round, it’s only a temporary solution — it’s not a home. That’s why the county is working on long term solutions. This spring, another new apartment complex will open at the former Armory site. It’ll house 29 units for formerly homeless individuals and their families. Plus, San Jose has a proposal to build a small village of modular homes where homeless people could live for up to three years. But for now, many who stayed in the Sunnyvale shelter are back outside.

“I think, the regret I feel at the end of each cold weather season is we don't have enough places for people to be,” Wagner says.

So on the last day of March, HomeFirst holds a big barbecue, gives away care bags filled with snacks, clothes, and toiletries and says their goodbyes.

The housing hunt continues

I wait outside the shelter the day it closes. Now and again, a person walks past me with duffle bags. Most don’t want to talk to me. But I catch Stephen Hohs while he waited for a train to the San Jose Public Library.  For the last three months, the shelter was his home. Before that, he also slept on Bus 22, like Anna Santos. He’s not angry he has to find somewhere else to go. He’s used to it.

“I’ve been out here for months, so two to three days isn’t going to be a psychological killer,” Hohs says.

Here’s his plan.

“From about 10 am to 2 pm, I’ve got to go to the library; from 4 pm to 6pm I have a meeting to go to look for housing for the week. There’s some churches around here that have rotating shelters,” Hohs says.  

The train arrives and Hohs (and a friend he’s waiting with) hop on.

I call Hohs a week after the shelter closed.  He tells me he spent the week sleeping in a mixture of motels, parks and buses. And he’s been meeting with a group called Faith in Action, a network of churches who provide shelters for homeless people. But he says that plan hasn’t really worked out. There’s no room for him. So, he’s back to looking.

And now, Silicon Valley’s housing advocates are back to looking, too ... for a place to put another homeless shelter next winter.